The untold story of the night terror fell from Capital’s sky

A Zeppelin over the Capital. Picture: contributed
A Zeppelin over the Capital. Picture: contributed
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100 years after a German Zeppelin raid on the city, new details show the attack was more intense and cost more lives than previously thought, finds Sandra Dick

IT was a calm and peaceful April night. A bright moon and cloudless skies, barely a whisper of breeze in the air.

At Leith Hospital and the Royal Infirmary, staff were going about their business tending to the ill and infirm.

In the Grassmarket, drinkers were at the bar at the White Hart Hotel. No doubt the latest war news from the front was the main topic of conversation.

Not far away at St Leonard’s Hill, a four-year-old girl and her baby sister were being tucked in to bed, a peaceful night’s sleep beckoning tired eyes.

Quiet and settled.

Not a bad night if you happened to be the German captain of a bomb-laden Zeppelin heading for Scotland’s capital city.

Even better that the city had no proper air defences, little in the way of warning unsuspecting citizens of attack and a “couldn’t happen here” attitude.

When two German Zeppelins attacked on April 2, 1916, they left 13 dead and 24 injured – at least that’s according to official reports. Now on the 100th anniversary, new detail has emerged which suggests the raid was more intense and may well have cost more lives than thought.

Edinburgh historian Sandy Mullay spent hours scouring documents and maps and now believes the full extent of the attack was quietly glossed over in a bid to quell public upset over the lack of warning.

“The raid was worse than was reported,” he says. “Two hospitals were attacked, one of them twice. It’s also possible that more people who had been injured died in the days afterwards. We’ll probably never know the real death toll.”

Papers detailing what happened were quietly stashed in storage after the Zeppelin attack. The official version of events – which skimmed over the full detail – came to be regarded as a faithful account.

Sandy was sifting through records at Edinburgh City Council’s city archives department when it became clear there was more to the Zeppelin raid story.

“There was a map that had been drawn up by the Burgh Engineer just days after the raids which showed where each bomb had fallen,” he recalls. “I was taken aback. It clearly showed that Leith Hospital had been bombed – something that hadn’t emerged before.”

The records also showed damage to two schools, Lauriston Special School and Castlehill School. They also showed almost twice as many bombs fell on Edinburgh than previously thought.

Documents which could clarify the death toll – officially set at 13 – were not available, raising the possibility that some of the 24 reported injured may well have died later.

The detail sheds new light on the first air raid to hit Scotland, which led to the creation of airfields at Gilmerton, Colinton and Turnhouse.

It was noon on April 2 when four German naval Zeppelins, L13, 14, 16 and 22, took off from Nordholz, between Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven, bound, it’s thought, for the Royal Navy base at Rosyth.

L13 turned back with engine trouble while the crew of L16 lost their bearings and instead bombed the north bank of the Tyne. L14 and L22 pressed on, travelling at up to 60mph and at up to 12,000ft high.

L14 found Rosyth in darkness, making a bombing raid pointless. Edinburgh and its port, however, were well lit.

The city authorities were not entirely unaware of what was happening, says Sandy. “Wireless traffic between the Zeppelins and their base was being monitored by the Royal Navy, who sent a warning to the Scottish Army Command Centre in Edinburgh as early as 5.25pm – six hours before the attack took place,” he says.

“It was not until 6.50pm that the city’s telephone exchange was warned, 7pm when the police were alerted, and another half hour passed before the Edinburgh Fire Brigade received a telephoned warning.”

Ordinary citizens were less well informed. Homes remained lit, sending a dazzling signal to the Zeppelins overhead.

L14 dropped its first bomb in the Edinburgh Dock before targeting Tower Place, at the town’s Customs House, on either side of Commercial Street and in the Sandport area.

A 66-year-­old man was killed at 2 Commercial Street, while a few doors away an elderly woman saw a bomb crash through her ceiling and then through her floor to the apartment beneath.

“This hardy resident proceeded to pour water through the hole in her floor on to the bomb below, succeeding in extinguishing it,” says Sandy.

At Ronaldson’s Wharf, a bonded warehouse used by Innes & Grieve for whisky storage, was set on fire causing £44,000­ worth of damage – around £2m by today’s standards. At Sheriff’s Brae, the manse of St Thomas’s Church was hit.

Sandy’s research uncovered previously unknown details of four bombs which landed just yards from Leith Hospital. Further bombs fell on Anderson Place and at Bonnington, where a baby was killed, before the Zeppelin headed for Edinburgh Castle where the One O’Clock gun was optimistically trained skywards.

Instead of hitting the Castle, however, a bomb landed on a boiler house roof at the Royal Infirmary and was extinguished by a hospital porter.

Sandy discovered it would not be the only incident at the hospital that night.

For as the L14 moved to Morningside – causing chaos at the psychiatric hospital – then Colinton in search of Redford Barracks, the second Zeppelin, L22, was arriving from the east. Its bombing raid included another hit – previously unreported – on the Royal Infirmary.

“The target was probably George Watson’s school,” says Sandy, “but windows were broken in hospital wards 34 to 36.

“The hospital archives recorded the management’s thanks to the staff for staying at their posts and had a few choice words to say about the German idea of warfare. The local authorities also came in for criticism, the hospital Acting Superintendent having no more warning about the raid than the general public.”

The L22’s bombs hit Castle Rock above King Stables’ Road, and damaged the County Hotel in Lothian Road. It then caused panic at Donaldson’s School for the Deaf before turning again for the Castle.

One bomb dropped onto the Grassmarket, exploding just outside the White Hart Hotel, killing one, injuring four and leaving a large crater in the road. Worse was at Marshall Street, in the Bristo area. One bomb killed five civilians, including a soldier on leave from the Royal Scots. Another in the St Leonard’s area killed the four-year-old girl and hospitalised her little sister.

Bombs rained on the Innocent Railway tunnel and the Wells of Wearie, at the edge of the King’s Park, before 80 minutes of terror which left £22m of damage drew to a close.

Having pieced together extra detail about the raids, Sandy hopes the maps and documents can be used to create a lasting memorial to the attack.

“I think an exhibition of the material would be fascinating,” he adds.

Documents and maps relating to the 1916 Zeppelin raid are available to view at Edinburgh City Archives, City Chambers.